Tokenism involves the symbolic involvement of a person in an organization due only to a specified or salient characteristic (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, disability, age). It refers to a policy or practice of limited inclusion of members of a minority, underrepresented, or disadvantaged group. The presence of people placed in the role of token often leads to a misleading outward appearance of inclusive practices. The term token is derived from the Old English word taken, which means “to show.” Thus tokenism exists because inclusion of the person or group is required or expected, not because of inherent value.
Psychological research suggests that tokenism may occur when members of the underrepresented group comprise less than 15% of the total environmental organizational context they are a part of. Furthermore, when there is only a single representative of a given group in an organizational environment, he or she is considered to have what is termed solo status.
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Historically psychological research has focused on the experiences of (White) women as they tried to achieve full participation in the workplace. However, in recent years racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, gay men, lesbians, and the elderly have been increasingly the focus of research regarding the effects of tokenism in the workplace. Tokenism, or the role of one as a token, does not necessarily indicate mistreatment or injustice. However, as a result of unfair and inequitable practices, tokenism is associated with several negative outcomes.
Tokenism has both individual and organizational impacts. On the individual level a person in the role of a token may feel dehumanized, stereotyped, marginalized, and depersonalized. Quality of life, mental and physical health, and potential for success in the organization may be compromised. For example, this person may begin to question his or her qualifications or abilities, and negative outcomes may result, such as pressure to conform, feelings of isolation, lowered morale, or depression. A person in the role of a token may experience a “glass ceiling” in the organization; that is, his or her success or ability to advance is limited by unseen forces because they are symbolic rather than full participants in the organization.
Token status is more likely to have negative consequences for members of groups that are lower in status or are more culturally stigmatized. Research has indicated that people who feel like tokens may experience challenges as underrepresented members of their specific social context. Three of these challenges are visibility, role encapsulation, and contrast. Visibility entails the perception that others pay a disproportionate amount of attention to people who feel like tokens and are hypervigilant concerning their actions and behaviors. Consequently, those who are in the position of token may feel they are constantly being examined or evaluated. Persons who feel like tokens in an organization may feel intensely self-conscious about how they react to their environment because of the expected and/or internalized pressure to represent their entire minority group.
Role encapsulation entails the group dynamic where a person is forced to play a role based on stereotypes of their group. For example, a racial/ethnic minority psychology faculty member may be expected to only teach classes related to multiculturalism, regardless of their area of expertise. Token status may produce negative consequences for members of traditionally underrepresented and stigmatized groups by increasing feelings of distinctiveness based on group membership, which can increase the salience of negative stereotypes or stereotypical expectancies.
The third challenge, contrast, emphasizes the majority group’s established differences between themselves and the people who are tokens that lead to unclear and inauthentic boundaries among the groups. These boundaries, although aimed to protect the majority group members, end up causing the identified tokens in the groups to isolate themselves as a means of protection from mistreatment or expectations of mistreatment by majority members (e.g., being perceived as intelligent when other group members are perceived as uneducated).
For the organization, tokenism may negatively impact morale, lead to high rates of turnover of people from underrepresented groups, and, most pointedly, tokenism eventually may deprive the organization of the full contribution (i.e., diversity) that the individuals in the role of token might have made to the organization. Thus tokenism itself is limiting and can potentially inhibit an organization from developing and competing in a diverse and global marketplace. Of course it should be noted that practices such as tokenism are intended to prevent change from occurring and to preserve the status quo.
Implications for Psychologists
Psychologists are specifically directed toward knowledge of tokenism to facilitate multicultural organizational development in the 2002 American Psychological Association Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research and Organizational Change for Psychologists. Psychologists have an ethical imperative to combat tokenism on the individual and organizational level. On the individual level psychologists can help empower clients who feel like tokens in their environments by helping the client adopt a systemic perspective on tokenism. A full range of options (leaving the organization, attempting to change the organization, adapting to the organization) can be explored. Special care should be taken so as not blame clients for their feelings (in essence, blaming the victim).
On the organization level, psychologists can serve in the role of change agents, consultants, and/or advocates. With knowledge of multicultural organizational development, psychologists can aid organizations in making substantive change. First, the psychologist can help motivate the organization to desire change based on both the benefits of change and a comprehensive evaluation of current and past discriminatory practices. Psychologists can help organizations recognize that a single individual should not be expected to represent an entire population group. Because of the increasing diversity in the population and culturally diverse backgrounds represented in today’s workforce, organizational culture may need to change to become inclusive at all levels and to be competitive in a diverse marketplace.
The development of innovative strategies that would incorporate the ideas and beliefs of all members of the group will help to ensure equality and a more inclusive environment for all involved. Although the identified tokens may overcome these negative experiences and the stereotypical beliefs of majority group members, the process can be slow.
The organization can reduce tokenism by avoiding assumptions (stereotypes) associated with the minority group. Combating stereotypes may include implementing advocacy and outreach education into institutional practices. Additionally, working to reduce the difficulties associated with token or solo status requires there be a diverse representation in the power structure of any group. Also, organizations can ensure that underrepresented groups are represented beyond a demographic or symbolic level. Beyond the issues of representation, true organizational change includes the issue of equity in outcomes (salaries, promotions, leadership opportunities).
- Niemann, Y. F. (1999). The making of a token: A case study of stereotype threat and racism in academia. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 20, 111-135.
- Niemann, Y. F. (2003). The psychology of tokenism: Psychosocial realities of faculty of color. Handbook of racial and ethnic minority psychology (pp. 100-118). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.